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Why foreign policy holds the key to Obama's second term

Andrew Hammond

Saturday, November 10, 2012    

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PRESIDENT Barack Obama's victory over Mitt Romney is a landmark moment in US politics. He is only the second Democratic president to win re-election since Franklin Roosevelt, doing so despite a very challenging economic headwind of sluggish growth and comparatively high unemployment in the United States.

While many Democrats are elated by Obama's success, his chances of securing major new domestic policy success are not very high. His narrower margin of victory than in 2008 gives him a weaker electoral mandate. Moreover, congressional Republicans, who were so at odds with the president's first-term agenda, have maintained their firm grip on the House of Representatives.

The Washington political scene thus has the potential for four more years of polarisation and gridlock. This and other factors are likely to encourage Obama, like several other second-term presidents in the post-war period, to increasingly turn his focus towards foreign policy.

The fact that Obama's second term may not, from the vantage point of domestic policy, be a productive one is not unusual for re-elected incumbents. During their first four years in the White House, presidents usually succeed in enacting several core priorities, while key items that failed to secure a critical mass of support are rarely resurrected.

To be sure, Obama may still achieve some domestic success, including a long-term federal budgetary "grand bargain" with Congress. However, many re-elected presidents in the post-war era have found it difficult to acquire momentum behind significant new legislative measures.

In part, this is because the party of re-elected presidents, as with the Democrats now, often hold a weaker position in Congress in second presidential terms. Thus Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Richard Nixon in 1972, and Bill Clinton in 1996 were all re-elected alongside congresses where both the House of Representatives and Senate were controlled by their partisan opponents.

Another factor that can exacerbate the exhaustion of a president's agenda in the second term is turnover of key personnel. Already, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have said they are departing. The problem for the president is that it is not always easy to recruit figures of the same status and calibre as those that go.

Two other issues have undercut the productiveness of second-term presidencies. First, re-elected administrations have often been impacted by scandals in recent decades (although the events that trigger the scandals can happen during first terms). Thus, Watergate ended the Nixon administration in 1974, Iran-Contra damaged Reagan, and the Lewinsky scandal led to Clinton's impeachment in 1998.

It remains to be seen if any major scandals will impact the Obama administration. However, some Republicans are already pressuring Obama on what they perceive as his team's "cover-up" of events surrounding the killing of four US citizens in Libya, including the US ambassador, in September.

Even if Obama and his administration escape significant scandal, he will not be able to avoid the "lame-duck" factor. That is, as presidents cannot seek more than two terms, political focus will inevitably refocus elsewhere in the country, particularly after the 2014 congressional elections when the 2016 presidential campaign kicks into gear.

This overall domestic policy context means Obama is likely to place increasing emphasis on foreign policy. This is especially likely if the economic recovery builds up pace in coming months.

Foreign policy could become an especially strong point of focus for the president, almost immediately, if Israel ups the ante with Iran on the latter's nuclear programme. A missile strike by Tel Aviv, with or without the support of Washington, remains a real possibility in 2013. This issue thus has potential to pose major headaches for Obama, and will require extremely skilled statesmanship, especially given his strained relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The probable emphasis by Obama on foreign policy in his second term will be reinforced by a desire to establish a significant legacy. Previous presidents have often seen foreign policy initiatives as key to the legacy they wish to build, including Clinton, who devoted much time in his second term trying to secure a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal.

Almost two decades later, with a significant breakthrough between the Israelis and Palestinians still log-jammed, other areas of the world are just as important to any Obama foreign policy legacy. In particular, following withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, and the intended drawdown in Afghanistan, the president will seek to continue his post-9/11 re-orientation of policy towards Asia-Pacific and other increasingly strategic, high-growth markets through initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Key threats on the horizon to maintaining this re-direction of policy remain the possibility of further terrorist attacks on the US homeland from al-Qaida, or a major upsurge of tension in the Middle East, perhaps emanating from Israeli-Iranian conflict or the implosion of Syria. Should any of these scenarios arise, however, it will only reinforce Obama's probable focus on foreign policy.

Andrew Hammond is an associate partner at ReputationInc, London, England. He was a former special adviser in the government of Tony Blair and a geopolitics consultant at Oxford Analytica.

ahammond@reputation-inc.com

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